Rita Allan is a biology teacher in the Howard County school system and was a biologist for 20 years before that, so when she learned that the Colombian boy who would be visiting her family likes science and nature, she took special note of their shared interest.
Still, she and her husband, Steve, chose to keep their expectations low when they signed on with Kidsave International to host Duvan, an 11-year-old orphan, in their Columbia home for just over four weeks this summer.
The couple, who have no children and have been awaiting the call to care for a child since becoming licensed foster parents in December 2009, didn't want to set themselves up for disappointment. But it turned out that such emotional safeguards weren't necessary.
"It's been such a joy," she said after Duvan had spent just four days with the couple. "He's always helpful and very appreciative. His presence here is enriching our lives."
Duvan is one of 36 kids age 8 to 14 to arrive in the United States on July 3 from Bogota. The orphans, all older and therefore harder to find adoptive families for, are on what might be deemed the ultimate summer vacation, leaving behind lives spent in institutions or foster homes. In America, the children spend time with families that either adopt them or work to find them permanent homes.
The Summer Miracles program has been successful in its 12-year history, said Terry Baugh, president and co-founder of Kidsave, the nonprofit international organization that runs it. Organizers say their mission is to facilitate adoptions for children, an approach that flips the conventional wisdom of finding children for families.
As part of its agreement with the Colombian government, Kidsave is not allowed to publicly identify the children by using their last names.
Of the more than 1,700 kids who have traveled from Colombia, Russia and Sierra Leone since 1999 for summer visits of four to six weeks, 85 percent have found "forever families," Baugh said. There are also Weekend Miracles visitation programs in place in Los Angeles and Washington.
"We estimate there are 30 million children out there without a mother or father," she said. UNICEF has estimated there are 463 million kids who have only one parent.
"By bringing these kids here to meet families, we hope to solve the orphan crisis and build permanency on a worldwide basis," said Baugh, a self-described "serial adopter" who has rescued four Russian children from institutional warehousing since 1993. "Having them visit takes the fear out of the equation for everybody."
This summer, nine Colombian orphans are staying with families in the Maryland, Washington and Virginia area. The remaining children are visiting California, Iowa, and the Connecticut-New Jersey-New York area.
Sarah Widman, who, with her husband Ryan, is hosting Andres, 9, at their Hickory Ridge home, said she keeps "waiting for a meltdown" from their young visitor since he's so far away from everything he knows, but it never comes.
"There have been no acclimating issues at all," she said. "We did meet each other via Skype [online video calling system] a week before he came, but it's still a leap of faith on both sides."
The Columbia couples, who met through Kidsave, have slightly different priorities: the Allans are hosting in hopes of adopting, and the Widmans are working to find a permanent family for Andres. Both love kids and are thrilled to take part in the unique program, they say.
The Allans attended their first meeting April 20 after a friend told them about Kidsave. It's been a whirlwind relationship, culminating two months later in Duvan's visit.
"We were a bit behind the others who were already working with a social worker," Rita Allan said of that initial session. "But we'd already had a home study [as approved foster parents] and within a week they had matched us with Duvan."
The Widmans had hosted weekend events the past two summers for Kidsave but are hosting a child this summer for the first time.
"It's been an absolute pleasure and really a lot of fun," Ryan Widman said of the new experience. "These kids are extremely resilient, and they always have smiles on their faces."
Neither Duvan nor Andres have had to fight off the summer doldrums that American kids often face when school is on hiatus.